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In Baghdad, 3 weeks of heartache, and counting

A worried Najat Sleem asked her husband not to go to work. He went - but he did not return.

By null, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 29, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq - He was a translator, a man fluent in English and Spanish who worked for Iraq's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

She was a former flight attendant, a woman of statuesque beauty who had traveled the world with the famous and powerful.

They lived in a modern apartment, with fine furniture and a tranquil view of the Tigris River. And though they had their share of sorrows - one daughter was born with Down's syndrome, a son was killed in a car accident - they had the closest thing to a normal, middle-class life in Iraq.

Then came April 7. Early that morning, 19 days into the war, 40-year-old Allah Sleem got into his white Toyota Corona and left for work.

That was the last time his family saw him.

For the past three weeks, Najat Sleem has traveled the streets of Baghdad, a sprawling city of 5-million, searching for her husband. She has gone to hospitals. She has talked to U.S. military officials. She has asked everyone she sees: Do you have any idea what happened to Allah?

Then came news both encouraging and horrifying. An Iraqi translator working for the 3rd Infantry Division told soldiers he had seen a car similar to the one Allah Sleem was driving. But it appeared to have been hit by a missile and was nearly incinerated. Could Najat please bring the vehicle identification number so soldiers could make a positive determination?

Monday, she would learn her husband's fate. Maybe.

With Baghdad still emerging from its postwar chaos, no one pays much attention to the tall woman in black with a baby in her arms and three little girls by her side.

But Najat Sleem, 38, once had the kind of presence that made people stare. In 1985, she got a sought-after job as a flight attendant for Iraqi Airways. It was in the midst of Iraq's devastating war with Iran, and many young women longed for an escape from the growing poverty and endless procession of coffins coming home from the front.

New York, Dallas, Tokyo, Paris - Najat saw places other Iraqis could only imagine. She became so popular she often worked charter flights with dignitaries like the king of Yemen and Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister. Jordan's King Hussein gave her a Longines watch.

Knowing a time might come when she could no longer fly, Najat arranged her schedule so she could attend Baghdad University. There she met Allah Sleem, and in 1988 they married. Like everyone else who worked for the regime, Allah had to join the Baath Party to get a job in the foreign affairs ministry. That also entitled him to government housing.

For someone at the very top, like Tariq Aziz, the housing perk meant a mansion unrivaled in opulence.

For a mid level employee like Allah, it meant an airy, two-bedroom apartment in a row of townhouses lining the west bank of the Tigris. From their balcony, residents could look across the river and see the lush stand of palms surrounding Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace.

Najat flew her last flight in January 1991; Iraqi Airways hasn't flown since the Persian Gulf War.

A few weeks before the start of the current war, she gave birth to her fourth girl, Tina. The Sleems were thrilled. But they began to worry that their neighborhood might be unsafe because it was so close to a bridge and the Republican Palace.

They accepted a friend's offer to stay in a place he owned a few miles away.

Monday, April 7, Allah Sleem seemed in a hurry to get to work. American troops were on the outskirts of Baghdad, but the unscathed foreign ministry remained open.

At 8:30 a.m., a hour earlier than usual, Allah was ready to go. Najat asked him not to leave - she thought it was too dangerous. But he grabbed some cheese and headed out the door.

All that day, Najat heard bombs dropping and the shriek of missiles. When Allah didn't come home at 2 for his afternoon break, she began to worry. The fighting moved closer, and by the time she went looking for him that evening, the battle had moved into a street in their neighborhood.

Afraid for her children, she went back to the apartment. They stayed there all the next day as the fighting continued.

On April 9, still no word from her husband, Najat hired a private car to take her and the children to the foreign ministry. But every bridge was blocked, and she feared being robbed by the looters who had begun to swarm across Baghdad. They turned back again.

On April 10, she asked an Iraqi friend who had a British passport to accompany them. This time, one bridge was open, and American soldiers guarding the ministry let her inside.

"I didn't find any car, any person. There was no evidence of fighting or violence. I felt good - maybe he didn't die," she said. "I asked people in the neighborhood what happened, and they told me the employees left before the coalition forces arrived. Maybe he was staying with one of his friends because the bridge was blocked."

On April 11, Najat acknowledged the obvious: If Allah been with a friend, he would have come home by now.

So she started looking in hospitals. There were hundreds of men, women and children - many with terrible injuries - but no sign of Allah.

Her next stop was the Palestine Hotel, then a headquarters for American forces in Baghdad. She met a kindly officer - she knew him only as "Maj. J.C.R." - who gave her a letter of introduction to show at U.S. military checkpoints. Perhaps someone there could help.

At last, her odyssey led to a checkpoint near the Republican Palace, right across the river from her own apartment. Another officer, this one a captain, confirmed what she had been told elsewhere - a translator had spotted a badly burned car, perhaps with a body in it, that might be a 1990 Toyota Corona.

But the car was in an area off limits to civilians. If Najat brought the VIN, the captain would send the translator to see if he could make a positive identification.

Najat found the number in her husband's papers and took it to the soldiers Wednesday. And began to wait.

By Sunday, still having heard nothing, she and her sister returned to the old apartment to try to clean it up - only to find that looters had claimed it.

For now, she and the children will stay in their borrowed apartment. She dares not let the girls outside. Monday morning, there was the near-constant sound of gunfire: It was a warning from one group of looters to another to keep away from a furniture store.

It all seemed too much.

"I don't know how to continue my life," she said. "I have four children, I cannot go to work because I have a baby two months old. People are helping me at the moment, but they might need this place back, and I will have to find another place. In a way, I am lost."

But Monday afternoon, Najat rallied. She left the older girls with her sister, and she and Tina went back to the checkpoint outside the Republican Palace. The soldiers escorted her to a white plastic chair under a tree and there she sat, baby in arms, looking like a portrait of the Madonna.

Finally, a captain came over to talk to her. The translator had gone to the place where he had seen the Toyota, but it was no longer there. Soldiers probably had moved it for security reasons, and it would take time to locate the right impound yard.

I know how hard it is for you to keep coming back with the baby, the captain told Najat. Why don't you wait at home and when we know something for certain, the translator will go to your house.

Najat's face was a palette of emotions - anxiety, worry, maybe even a little hope. Perhaps Allah was in a hospital after all.

She would continue her search.

Baghdad has 40 hospitals. She had checked only seven.

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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